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Thoughts on Covers, Websites and Advertising

July 14, 2009

Yesterday’s post, by Jodi, struck a chord with me. I started to post a reply and somewhere in the fifth paragraph I decided that, just maybe, I ought to flesh out my thoughts in the venue of a real post, instead of hiding it down among the comments.

It’s not something I speak of often, or admit in mixed company, but my college degree is in Advertising (a B.S. for those of you searching for irony). And that puts me in a unusual, though not unique, position to observe that many authors refuse to acknowledge the need for advertising.

“Do you also choose your books by their covers? I prefer to read before judging.” ~Tuck (Fourth Fiction contestant)

This statement embodies a baffling combination of naïveté, intentional twisting of language, and hypocrisy that is frighteningly prevalent among artists in general, and authors in particular.

Let’s start with the loose use of language in this oversimplification. Do you know anyone who judges a book by it’s cover? I have four kids and none of them—including the six-year-old—do this. What they—or should I say, we—are sometimes guilty of is judging whether we will read a book by its cover. That’s a pretty stark difference.

Next up is the naïveté of the statement. I’ve never counted the number of books at the nearest Borders, but if it’s not 50,000 unique titles I’d be surprised. How am I supposed to decide what to load up my to-read pile with if I don’t either select titles at random, or use a few superficial criteria to narrow the choices? Of course there are non-superficial criteria available to me, but if I rely on suggestions from friends and authors I’m familiar with I’m going to have to read an awful lot of sample passages to pick out what’s going to keep me company during my commute.

Now let’s take a brief look at the hypocrisy. We ALL judge “books” by their “covers” EVERYDAY. Whether it be those among us who are already miffed at the success of Dan Brown’s next novel because he sold a bazillion copies of what amounts to a pulp novel, or those of us whose eyes follow the shapely brunette we pass on the street. We HAVE to make these snap judgments in order to live our lives without being inundated by a flood of choices. For example, in anticipation of this post, when I went to the grocery store for milk a few hours ago I counted the number of novels available for me to purchase—at the grocery store I had a choice of 209 different novels by 122 different authors.

So why do so many of us—and by us I mean both writers and the larger classification artists—still cling to the notion that people shouldn’t judge our books by their covers?

I think it’s the distasteful notion that after all the blood and sweat that went into our creation—whether it be a short story, a painting, a screenplay, a sculpture or a novel—we still need to convince people that it’s worth more than a casual look. It feels a bit like making a new mother convince people that her new baby is cute. We just feel it should be obvious.

But the fact is that advertising is a necessary component—you may think necessary evil is more accurate—not just of writing or publishing, but of modern life. Candidates for president have to advertise. Charities who want to eliminate cancer, or help battered women and children need to advertise. Chewing gum needs to advertise.

Whether we like it or not, writers need to advertise.

And I’m not just talking about book covers. It’s 2009 and you’re just not technologically conscious unless you have your own website—without exaggeration, many writers have a half dozen sites in their stable. But you might be surprised if you were to count how many of those sites are an off-the-shelf template with a title that took the writer ten seconds to come up with.

I’ve read a half dozen posts this year warning authors not to get caught up in the design of their blogs because it gets in the way of actual writing. And I don’t disagree. But while under-designing your website will give you more time to write, it will also assure that the people who wander into your writing are less likely to stick around.

So the next time we’re all on our collective soapbox preaching about injustice, ask yourself why you dress up for a job interview…or a date. Ask yourself why so many of the websites you bookmark look good.

And remember, you spent too many hours to count working on that novel, or collection of short stories, or whatever you’ve written. Do you really want to shoot yourself in the foot over just a few hours spent carefully considering how you will convince people to read it?

Dale enjoys writing, but also enjoys applying the more soulless of his talents—web design and advertising—to his other pursuits. You can see some of his visual work at his blog and his better half’s blog, (and like any good creative director, he came up with the idea and the copy, but found someone else to do the art).
  1. July 14, 2009 5:42 am

    Speaking of book covers, you’re assuming that the author (unless self-published) has control over what the cover will look like. At best the author is sometimes permitted to give input into it but it’s the publisher who has final say. In addition, the quality of the cover may depend on the size of the publishing house and the marketability of the author. The Dan Browns, John Grishams, or Stephen Kings of this world are much more likely to have nice covers to their books since the publishers know the books will sell (regardless of quality of content) and therefore can afford better or more experience artists.

    As for the look and feel of blogs and websites, the difference is in looking professional or amateurish. On the other hand, many sites have too many bells and whistles for my taste and, worst of all, paying advertising. The latter may mean that as a blogger you’ve “arrived” but for me it only means that the focus has shifted from writing to marketing. Not necessarily a bad thing for some, but you have to ask yourself what is the priority. In the end content for me will always be more important than artifice.

  2. July 14, 2009 6:00 am

    So you’ve come out of the closet Dale!

    My time in magazine publishing taught me the need for balanacing asthetics and good content. The best writing, information etc is pointless if it is badly laid out or looks bad. However the prettiest lay out will never sell if it is full of crap articles etc.

    One of my favourite blogs – from a former magazine art director gets the look and the content just right. I’ve always tried to emmulate the synergestic balance she has achieved.

    I think sometimes image has to do with a gut feeling of what is right. A project I am currently working on – as soon as I had the name I knew instantly the image to go with it. And I think sometimes the instant recognition or connection we have with a book cover is our gut instinct working.

    Thanks for reminding us all we need to get out there are sell ourselves in small and large ways. Because if we don’t do it – no one else will do it for us.

  3. July 14, 2009 9:14 am

    I think this article is great. It is absolutely true that advertising is needed for anything and everything these days (try watching television without seeing an advertisement for prescription drugs that can help with whatever problem you might have — I half expect to see an ad for a pill to cure writer’s block one of these days!)

    Self-promotion is not what I am good at. It’s part of the reason I’m still in my day job — I hate updating my resume and hate even more writing the cover letter for it. So from that perspective, if I’m ever lucky enough to get a novel to a state where it can be published, I’m going to want to let someone with a marketing background do the work. Clearly it is necessary, evil or not, and done well I think it can be a huge benefit to all parties involved (the author, the publishing house, the readers, etc.)

    It’s a fine line, of course, and a new author may feel little-to-no power to fight for his or her vision of what the book should look like or how it should be sold. Are there guidelines out there about how hard an author can push back if he or she doesn’t like the cover art or the back cover excerpts? An aquaintence of mine is having her first novel published in a couple months; she hates the cover. She ran it by some of us to get feedback… first showed us the cover and asked what we thought the book was about, then replied with what it was really about. While the cover might sell some books because it is decently done, it does not really communicate what the book is about. She tried to get them to change it but they refused. She backed off at that point but is concerned that this situation could negatively impact future books.

    So, what can an author do in this case where the advertising is not under his or her control or influence?

  4. battypip permalink
    July 14, 2009 9:28 am

    While I agree with just about everything you say, I have to quibble a bit (cos that’s the way I am)… I don’t JUDGE a book by its cover, not very much anyway, but I do tend to CHOOSE books by their covers. So although I admit that there is a judgement process going on in a limited sense (I don’t think I’d like to read that book so I won’t buy it), once I’ve got the book my judgement of it is not informed by the cover art.

    But then I guess that’s no consolation to those authors whose books I’ve bypassed (thus depriving them of royalties) because the publisher’s marketing department selected a particularly inappropriate cover! So I suppose I do agree with absolutely everything you say… in a way…


  5. July 14, 2009 9:57 am

    When I go to the store to buy a book, the books I buy fall into one of two camps with regard to book covers. In the first camp are those books that I went to the store to buy. In those cases, I don’t care what the cover looks like. I’m determined to buy the book no matter what’s on the cover.

    In the second camp are book purchases that are more like impulse buys — purchases that I didn’t intend to make when I left my house (I usually pick these up at used book stores). In these cases, a really ugly or inappropriate book cover might dissuade me from purchasing the book, but I don’t think I’ve ever been persuaded to buy a book because of a really pretty cover. In my opinion, most book covers look pretty, so if I bought every book that looks attractive, I’d have thousands and thousands more books than I already own!

    Lately, the one place where I have heard people talk about how important a book cover is is in the self-publishing community and among the critics of self-publishing. A lot of self-published books have ugly covers. It’s almost a cliche that if you self-publish your book, more likely than not you will have an ugly cover. A lot of readers and reviewers have picked up on this, and one of the reasons that reviewers give for refusing to review self-published books is that the covers look ugly. Perhaps that isn’t fair, but perhaps it’s a good point. If an author won’t spend much effort on creating a nice cover, can you really expect that the author has spend much effort on what’s between the covers?

  6. July 15, 2009 1:11 am

    I love books. And I love reading books. But sometimes I judge a book by its cover. My sister is a graphic designer, so I guess the eye for shapes and colors and images rubbed off on me. I love reading a book with an interesting or beautiful cover. I know that might mean that I miss out on a ton of great books, but its only most of the time. Those other times I might just ignore the cover.

  7. July 15, 2009 5:27 am

    I love playing around with the look of covers and blogs etc.

    One thing I do sometimes is design to cover for my WIP. It’s a fun little distraction that helps to inspire me.

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